God is not an ethical rulebook.
Tonight in the shower, for absolutely no reason, I was transported back to 8th grade Bible class when my teacher gave us a creative writing assignment. Everyone else in the class rolled their eyes, but I dove my pen into my notebook and couldn’t pull the ideas from my head to the pen fast enough, primarily because of the prompt he gave us:
“Write about a day without God.”
I should fish through my old papers and find the original story, but mine began with badgers crawling out of their holes and eating people. Then the earth began splitting and peeling apart as the ground on which existence rested was wrenched.
A few days later when we shared our creations, I was frankly disappointed/bored with my classmates’ stories. I recall pithy sentiments like “I was walking around the mall with my brother and people were stealing things and doing what they wanted,” as if God only existed as a Jiminy Cricket character whispering ethical nothings in your ear like a backseat lover. Mine was easily the most extreme, but few other stories actually conceptualized God as more than a conscience or a moral judge.
Only in hindsight have I caught what this little exercise revealed about the way many of us view God.
For many of us, God exists to monitor the good and bad things we do. When I was a youth pastor, I can’t count the number of times a high schooler would accidentally swear in church and then make a guilty face toward me as if they’d just slapped my mother.
“You can’t say that in here!” one of their friends would scold them.
Why couldn’t they swear in a church? Because it’s where God lives and because God is a cop who will pull you over if you swear or kiss your boyfriend, but only in places where he can see, like in a church building.
Have you ever felt like this? Like the religion you inherited from your parents or your pastor is nothing more than a moral checklist of do’s and don’t’s, as if God were chiefly concerned with monitoring your behavior?
How different this approach to God is than the one the Bible presents! How anemic and weak!
As mentioned before, I have been teaching slowly through the Bible and am seeing new and glimmering sides of Christ I never saw before. In fact, you’d be surprised how few moralistic instructions come out of His mouth. Whenever there is something like that coming out, He is usually rebuking the Pharisees (religious teachers) for their religious pride and false righteousness. More often, Jesus is demonstrating just how, exactly, God is bigger than their ethical laws on every front.
He calms the storm and the winds and the waves obey Him. (Power over nature)
He heals numerous diseases and disabilities. (Power over human bodies/disease)
He tells demons and other ‘unclean spirits’ what to do. (Power over spiritual realm)
And yes, He even invades the Jewish religious structures and eradicates them in favor of the outsider. (Power over human religion)
All this is to say that if your god is nothing more than a mere series of ethical codes, you’ve got Jesus all wrong. You haven’t just gotten Him a little wrong; you’re answering in a different language. You were asked what 2+2 is and you answered with “purple.” You are trying to dig a hole in the ground by climbing a tree and shooting a pistol at the clouds.
That’s how wrong you are to fathom God as nothing more than an ethical conscience.
Let me try to explain another way, and you’ll have to strap on your philosophy helmets for this one.
At the inception of philosophy, the world seemed pretty simply structured in a foundational hierarchy: At the base you had everything as it existed: the world, birds, dirt, men and women, and so on (metaphysics). Upon this was knowledge, or what people were capable of knowing (epistemology). Then, pulling from what people were capable of knowing came ethics, or the right and wrong way to live.
Millennia later, the bottom two flipped. It began when Descartes questioned the very nature of what people are even capable of knowing and burped out the phrase “I think therefore I am,” or cogito ergo sum. Post-modernity saw a flipping of the way things are interpreted and the way things actually are in the universe:
Knowledge became the base of everything, and we wound up with questions like, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” This is a philosophical question because it begs the question of whether anything exists outside of human experience.
I could go on, but I’d end up chasing a million rabbits down their trails. The important thing here is the top component: No matter what era of philosophy you dropped into, you would find ethics at the top of the pyramid.
Why does this matter? Well, if God only plays in the ethical sphere, then He is not primary, nor is He secondary, but tertiary. He is third-most-important in the construction of the world.
It stands to reason, then, that God cannot be merely an ethical entity. He is so much more than that, and so much more foundational.
He informs the metaphysical and the epistemological, yet most of us spend our time relegating Him to the ethical sphere. This explains a lot of unhealth in our religion in three ways:
- It makes for far too small of a god. It makes a god who is dependent on other things in the universe, and he will just take care of the ethical sector.
- It makes us disproportionally fearful of Him. After all, if He is 100% ethics-based, that has to be His main game. And he’s gonna git you.
- Our theology becomes unutterably small. If our God is the God of rules and only rules, then what do we do with beauty? What do we do with secular poets or deep, rich human experiences which seem transcendent in some mystical way? What about what the Irish call Thin Spaces, which are places where the barrier between the natural and the divine seems thinner than others?
Ok, you can unfasten your helmet and take a breath.
Cramming your God into the teeny-tiny box of ethics is clearly unhealthy and a manmade invention, not the way God intended for Himself to be known. This is why, as Eugene Peterson put it, Christ plays in 10,000 places.
It is tragic that so many people see God as nothing more than a small cricket on their shoulder hoping they make the right decisions throughout the day. This is what my classmates’ stories betrayed: That they believed in a character/conscience but simply gave him the name of ‘God.’ How small!
No, God is the God of orangutans, the depths of the ocean, and the depths of our hearts; of blackholes lightyears away, and the distance between former lovers. To pigeonhole Him into a list of rights and wrongs not only pains His heart, but it calls a bottle of brackish water the ocean.
You can often tell if someone has this ethics-only picture of God by the language they use of Him:
Do they speak of Him as if He is the ground of all existence, or as if you’re about to break a rule?
Can you see where I’m going?
How many of us are trapped in this cycle of seeing God through this narrow lens of ethical do’s and don’t’s? It’s like trying to take in the sunset while peering through a straw.
God gives us ethical implications, of course, but to assume that this is all He is is entirely wrong. It’s more akin to the Pharisees’ picture of God than the ones Jesus praised: the prostitutes, tax collectors, and outcasts.
Let’s be more like those people — the ones who acknowledged how unclean and undeserving they were, and approached God rightly. And when they were around Him, we don’t get the impression that he was wagging a finger at them; it seemed more like a party.
Let’s find Him everywhere, not just in shameful rulebooks and guilty feelings.
Let’s be people who delight in the God who dwells in every single facet of the world.
May He become the ground of your existence, not a mean father unfastening his belt to give you a cosmic whooping.